Fear Makes Snitches of Us All, Research Time, 17/10/2017

When I was in my last year of undergrad, I took a graduate course about Hannah Arendt. It was a beautiful course, with a professor who’s still a valued colleague and a friend.* It was my first exposure to her work, and to work about her work.

* Who I don’t talk to often enough. Nobody talks to anyone as often as they should, but maybe that’s what people who don’t talk enough say.

Human social solidarity is broken by tyranny, when your government
forces the people into paranoia, fear of each other, incentivizing
betrayal over friendship.
One of Arendt’s concepts was the centre of complex debates in the commentary – common sense. What exactly was this concept of Arendt’s? I think I read more about the concept than Arendt’s own writing on it in that course.

That was only one of many ideas in commentary, when the course itself focussed on understanding modern international human rights law and responsibilities with Arendt’s concepts. So the course never made time for the whole of The Human Condition.

When I read her discussion of common sense in the context of reading that book, I had what I think is a good handle on it. Not enough to end all dispute in Arendt commentary, of course. That’s not my goal, thank God.

No, I just want a concept whose structure and mechanics I can understand and use well enough for my own argument on the same broader question – How can we live together in peace.

So you have my take on Arendt’s concept of common sense. Literally the style of life of self-conscious social creatures – we live in the world as if that world is shared. Not only that, we need to live in a shared world for the sake of our mental health. Social life is exercise for an essential part of the human organism – our minds and personalities.

In one of the first climactic moments of Doctor Who, he said, "Fear
makes companions of us all." Only fear of what's outside. When you
fear the ones who are trapped with you in the cave of skulls, you'll
never get out alive.
Daily life includes camaraderie, friendship, the exchange of meaningful, significant conversation. Humans need the act of bonding, the constitution of solidarity, to be our complete selves.

Our highest state as a society will be when all 7.4-billion of us are open to becoming a single, global community. Humanity’s most complete selves. Between us would be a literal common sense – the sense of living in common, as friends, as part of the same society, in all our differences.**

** Excepting, of course, the paradox of tolerance – not really a paradox, because this utopia would be a society not of tolerance, but acceptance. The refusal to be friends must never be accepted.

This utopian asymptote – universal solidarity and friendship – was how Arendt saw totalitarian structures of government and society extending back thousands of years. We’re accustomed to seeing totalitarianism as a new invention – that’s how Hannah Arendt saw things in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Totalitarian governments like Hitler’s, Stalin’s, and Mao’s was the most intense form of it in history. But the fundamental principle is the same as in the time of the ancient Greek tyrannies. Break solidarity, isolate people with fear.

The Soviet Union's NKVD, the secret police institution that ran the
government with Josef Stalin at its head, I think of as the best
example of totalitarian and tyrannical government for my ideas in
The institution of the secret police was how the modern administrative state did tyranny. Short of full-on totalitarianism, that’s the modern form of tyranny. But the basic function is the same as in the smaller communities of Polis Greece.

The tyrant is isolated from the people – they fear him, and hide from being noticed by him. The people hide from each other, avoid being noticed even by their friends. Any friend could become an informer on you, even if you hadn’t done anything. To inform is a weapon, to bring down the tyrant’s police on someone you want out of the way.

Democracies are practically the inversion. Ideally, leaders should fear the people, because the votes of the people can cost them their jobs. At the least, citizens want to be seen by their leaders – we lobby them, complain to them, yell at them that they’re doing a crap job.

In a democracy, where we can bring our institutions to our heel, we can create the space in our society to build bonds of friendship. Our interactions along these bonds create common sense – our intuitive sense of common ground with our neighbours. Near and far.

When these bonds are broken, we become weak. We’re less than what we could be. That’s the destructive power of paranoia, of the secret police.

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